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  • Randal Tame

What is social identity?

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

If I asked you to tell me about yourself, what would you say?

I suspect you would tell me about where you work, your profession or role, perhaps where you live and your interests. But let’s add some context. If we were attending a football match at which your favourite team was playing and I asked you to tell me about yourself, what would you say? You might tell me which team you support (if that was not already obvious by your clothing and behaviour) and why it is the better team? You would tell me about your social identity – the identity that you share with others.

We all have a sense of our self, not just as an individual, but also as a member of meaningful groups – our social identity. Our sense of our self is made up of many group identities that we share with others, e.g., “us females”, “us Australians”, “us consultants”, etc. When we take on group membership as part of our subjective self-definition, we attempt to make sense of our group’s standing in the social world by comparing our in-group favourably against a relevant out-group. Which group will constitute the out-group and what makes our in-group better will depend on the context, and the values and priorities of our group.

For example, I like watching rugby. I played it (poorly) as a youth and have been a supporter of my local club since my teens. When I go to a game, I wear the colours of my local club and sit with other supporters of my team. I know they are my group because we tend to have the same goals (wanting our team to win), the same values and the same norms of behaviour. We also implicitly understand and explicitly discuss, why our team is better and different on valued dimensions (if we don’t win, it’s because we are fair, and they cheated). I know who the other team’s supporters are, the out-group, because they don’t share our goals, values and norms (e.g., they dress in their club’s colours).

When I think of the other team’s supporters, I consider them in terms of a coherent and distinct identity, a prototype – a fuzzy set of attributes - that define the goals, values and norms that define the similarities of people within the group and the differences between that group and other groups. According to social identity theory, when I categorise a person as belonging to a particular group, I tend to view them as either more or less prototypical of that group. And, just as I categorise others, I will categorise myself as more or less similar to my ingroup prototype. It is important to understand that these group prototypes influence comparisons between groups and will change depending on which groups are compared.

Now, change the context. Each year rugby has a Super tournament where my state team play against other Australian states and regional teams from New Zealand and South Africa. When I attend a Super rugby match, I now support my state (NSW) team, and my in-group now includes those who, in the context of a local club game, I considered the out-group. Now, if NSW are playing Queensland, for example, the Queensland supporters are the out-group and us New South Wales folk are clearly better and different. Change the context one more time, this time, the Australian national team, the Wallabies, are playing New Zealand All Blacks. In this context, now the Queensland supporters are considered part of our Wallabies in-group and we implicitly know that we are better than and different to the out-group Kiwis.

Social identity research tells us that when we choose to identify with a group, we incorporate that group into our self-concept and use it to inform both our attitudes and behaviour. And, having defined our self in terms of a particular social identity, we will act to maintain or enhance the positive distinctiveness of the group with which that identity is associated. As a consequence, we are more likely to act in the interests of the group rather than only in terms of our personal self-interest. What’s more, we will sustain our efforts on behalf of the group across changing circumstances.

Our social identities help us to deal with our social world. In fact, without social identity, group life would not be possible. Our social identity also has emotional significance. Think about how you feel when your team wins or when your country excels? To excel means to do better than another so, the meanings and evaluations that we attach to our group memberships are necessarily comparative. Who we are is partly defined by reference to who we are not. Importantly, we enhance our self-esteem by working with others to ensure our group excels.

OK, so getting a little technical, but the really important thing to understand about the social identity approach is that when we define our self in terms of a social identity, then this has a number of consequences for our orientation towards, and engagement with, our in-group members. Among other things, social identity leads to:

· increased liking for in-group members

· increased organizational citizenship,

· greater willingness to co-operate,

· greater trust and respect,

· better communication, and

· enhanced productivity.

In short, our social identity helps us to understand who we are as a function of our similarities and differences with others and provides a basis for shared social action. When we share a social identity with others then we are motivated to act in the interests of the group rather than only in terms of our personal self-interest. And, having defined our self in terms of a particular social identity, we will act to maintain or enhance the positive distinctiveness of the group with which that identity is associated.

But isn’t this denying my individuality?

Not at all. Our sense of self is made up of our individuality (what makes us different to other individuals) but also our many group identities. Social identity is not the loss of individual identity or an immersion in some form of group-think, it is a redefinition of self that is as valid and psychologically meaningful as your individual self. As an individual you want to achieve and feel good about yourself, to enhance your self-efficacy and self-esteem. When you identify as a group your self-efficacy and self-esteem is achieved through the standing and achievements of your group.

Social identity theory argues that we choose which identity has most utility and value depending on the perceived context. If you are an ambitious woman seeking to get to the boardroom and you perceive that there is little barrier to your advancement, then you are likely to adopt strategies of individual mobility, stressing your personal qualities and achievements as more relevant than any group membership. But what if you perceive a glass ceiling that presents an impermeable barrier to your, or any woman’s, progression? It is in this situation that you are likely to identify with other women and work together on collective strategies to break the glass ceiling (for more on this and associated ideas of social creativity and social competition, see our upcoming post on Mergers and Acquisitions).

The key point is that social identity is not the loss of individuality but that the ability to also see your self as a member of meaningful groups provides a basis for being able to coordinate behaviour with others, to understand who is on your team and who isn’t and to implicitly, and explicitly, understand what goals they are aiming for.

So how is social identity useful to me?

As we argued above, social identity is the basis for social behaviour because, as social identity researcher Alex Haslam states,

“in a majority of social contexts, social identities serve to structure (and restructure) people’s perception and behaviour: their values, norms and goals; their orientations, relationships, and interactions; what they think, what they do, and what they achieve.”*

If you want to influence and drive change, deliver a new strategy, merge organisations, manage diversity, improve organisational well-being, and organise and lead teams to greater heights of achievement then the social identity approach has practical guidelines for success. Social identity might also be the secret to your charisma. We will look at each of these ideas in subsequent posts.

If you would like to know more about social identity, see our blogs at

* Haslam, S. A. (2014). Making good theory practical: five lessons for an Applied Social Identity Approach to challenges of organizational, health, and clinical psychology. Br J Soc Psychol, 53(1),

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